Farm Bureau Asks Kent To Pony Up

April 2, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Kent County approved a Purchase of Development Rights ordinance in late 2002, a number of commissioners voted for its passage because it didn’t require the county to invest any tax revenue in the program.

Instead of directly funneling tax dollars into the PRD account, county officials promised commissioners that they would look at outside sources for the money to buy development rights from agreeable property owners. So far, four area foundations are willing participants in the program and the Kent County Preservation Board is asking for some federal funds.

But the ordinance does not ban the county from contributing tax dollars to the program. In fact, it allows for it, a reality that didn’t escape some county officials.

“I think it would be disingenuous to say that county commissioners will never be asked for funds,” said then-Assistant County Administrator Al Vanderberg in November of 2002.

Well, the Kent County Farm Bureau Board feels the time to ask has arrived.

Bureau board members unanimously issued a challenge to the county late last month, saying they’ll contribute $10,000 to the PDR account if the county donates $20,000.

“At both the local and the state level, the Farm Bureau is very aggressive on this issue and should be at the forefront, so we felt the need to come forward with some money,” said James May, president of the Kent County Farm Bureau and a member of the county’s farmland preservation board.

“We hope the county will get something going; the county commissioners need to take action. If the county doesn’t commit, the Farm Bureau’s not committing,” added May.

The Bureau’s Land Use Committee worked with the county to set up the PDR program and that group also feels it’s time for Kent to pony up.

“Eventually it’s going to boil down to money and our committee thought it was time,” said John Finkbeiner, committee chairman. “We can talk all we want to, but sooner or later you’ve got to do something.”

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said any money that Kent commits to the PDR doesn’t necessarily have to be county tax dollars.

“It means matching funding from somewhere, from the local units of government, the property owners themselves, or sources like that,” he said.

Delabbio added that the county has invested a lot of its financial resources in greenspace preservation through the purchase of property for parks, and that endeavor seems be where much of the board has its primary interest.

“There is only so much money available and quite frankly the preference of the board as a whole, and I can’t speak for individual members, but the board as a whole views parkland preservation as a priority and that is where money has been spent — over $20 million in the last five years and a big chunk of that has, of course, gone into Millennium Park,” said Delabbio.

The Wege Foundation, $500,000; the Steelcase Foundation, $200,000; and the Lowell Area Community Foundation, $50,000, have pledged money to the PDR effort. Like the Farm Bureau, the Frey Foundation has issued a challenge grant to the county. It will give $200,000 to the account if the county comes up with $400,000 on its own.

The PDR program is voluntary and a landowner needs township approval before he or she can apply to the county. So far 44 farmers have applied for the program and the county’s agricultural preservation board has accepted 27. PDR money would buy the developmental rights from a property owner and allow farmers and growers to continue working the land.

The county’s Urban Sprawl Subcommittee, which recommended the PDR and five other strategies to curb sprawl, used $5,000 as the average per-acre difference between the farm value of a property and its higher development value. The subcommittee proposed that the county pick up 12.5 percent of the program’s price tag.

Commissioner Jack Horton, also a farmer, felt a fair price for development rights would be from $2,200 to $2,500 per acre. Whatever the price tag, though, he said it was up to the county to set it.

“We spend no more than we choose to spend. The buck stops with us,” said Horton.

Kent County is paying the MSU Extension Service to administer the PDR program for three years at roughly $10,000 per year. The county ordinance limits preservation to 25,000 acres and calls for a review of that number each year. Commissioners approved the program by a vote of 15 to 4 back then, and the board won’t meet again until April 22.

Getting the county to shift tax revenue from the general fund to the PDR account might not be considered a mission impossible for the Farm Bureau, but it might not be all that easy either.

“Individual members clearly indicated that they voted ‘yes’ specifically because there was no funding tied to it,” said Delabbio last week, “and as a mechanism to enable local units of government to take advantage of programs that are out there.”

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